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When Russian troops stormed Muslim Tashkent near daybreak June 15, 1865, chaplain Andrei Y. Malov of the Fourth Orenburg Line Battalion was first through the battered Kämalan gate. The Russian Orthodox priest, who won a military cross from army authorities for valor, headed a leading assault column with Russian battle cries of "ura!" and, holding his ecclesiastical cross high before him, urged on the attack as though in the name of Christianity. The fall of Islamic Tashkent, the first large town in Central Asia seized by czarist soldiers, marked a new, domestic period in affairs between Central Asia and Russia. Simultaneously, the capture signaled an imminent end to the latest stage in their independent religious, economic, military, cultural, and diplomatic relations, some of which had begun a thousand years before.
This confrontation at the gates of Tashkent was by no means the first spiritual encounter involving Central Asia and Russia, for religion had apparently brought about formal relations linking the two as early as A.D. 986. Kievan princes then reputedly sought instruction concerning Islam from Khwarazm, whose shah prematurely expressed his gladness "about their [the Russians'] desire to accept Islam, and welcomed them with rich gifts and sent one of his imams to teach them Islam's rules." These Russians, said Islamic historians with unwitting irony, became Muslims because of "a desire to receive the right to conduct war for the faith." But Vladimir of Kiev, according to an old Slavic version of the story, in A.D. 986 rejected the teachings of Muslim missionaries, saying, as a Russian leader might today, that "undergoing circumcision and neither eating pork nor drinking wine were disagreeable to him." If, as both Islamic and Russian Orthodox traditions agree, the Central Asians had that chance to spread Islam, they failed to convert the Russians at this critical juncture and thus lost a great opportunity to employ religion for tying this largest Slavic group to the East rather than the West.
Although the question of faith nearly always colored relations between Russian Christians and Central Asian Muslims, at least until the fall of Tashkent religion never became a primary issue between the regions, never sent crusades on the offensive solely to convert populations inhabiting one of those competing areas. This was probably because, in the time after Russia had accepted Christianity, the Central Asians dominated Russian territory only as accessories to Mongol rule in the third quarter of the thirteenth century, and the Mongols at that time did not favor Islam in Russia. Soon after the Golden Horde's collapse in the fifteenth century allowed the czars to push forward their frontiers in the direction of Siberia, Russia ran headlong into a recently formed khanate allied to Bukhara. Although Christian-Muslim antipathy had not brought them diere, this deliberate engagement became for both sides areligious contest as well as the first real test of political strength matching a Central Asian khanate against Moscow.
Abdullah Khan (r.1557-1598) of Bukhara in 1572 had sent a religious mission to bolster Islam in Siberia, and in 1598 in a message to his protégé, Kuchum Khan(r.1563-1598) of Siberia, re-emphasized the religious importance of Siberia's defense against the Russians:
The enemies of our faith at the present time are the kafirs [Russians] ... you must conclude peace [with local Asian chieftains] and think about taking your lands out of the kafirs' hands again. If you carry on the present practices without coming to an understanding ... you will remain powerless before the kafirs:
Kuchum and Abdullah died not long after this message was composed, and Russia went on to absorb Siberia, but though this clash strained diplomatic ties between Bukhara and Moscow, it raised no permanent religious barriers to their later intercourse.
Aside from this isolated collision of "believers" and unbelievers," as members of both religious groups saw each other, religion became an important matter of state for Central Asian-Russian affairs early in connection with pilgrimage and marriage, two kinds of special situations which repeated themselves sporadically between the time Astrakhan lost its independence to Russia in the sixteenth century and the Russian occupation of Central Asia three hundred years later. The most direct pilgrimage routes from Central Asia to Mecca lay directly across Persia, but were blocked by the hostile Shiite Muslims, and now the Central Asian Sunnites' chief alternate road through Astrakhan Tatar territory to Mecca was also cut off. Consequently, the Central Asians had to sue for permission to cross land held by Russia to go the long way via the Black Sea to Istanbul and thence to Mecca. Diplomatic correspondence to Russia from Bukhara and Khiva, particularly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, often pleaded for unobstructed passage of Muslims to their Holy City or between their countries, permission which the Russians were usually reluctant to grant. Until Catherine II's ukase of May 9, 1780, the czarist attitude regarding communication between Muslim countries remained negative: "One of the rules of policy had been ... to block communication both to Muslims living in the bounds of the present empire with co-religionists, as well as equally to Muslims not subject [to Russia] inhabiting Greater Tatary, via this territory, with the Crimea, the Kuban, and the Ottoman Porte."
Further evidence for this Russian change of heart regarding religion came later in the decade. The Empress set in motion a program to convert the Kazakhs to Islam by employing Tatars from Kazan as missionaries to the plains. Their activity was meant to reduce the influence of Bukharan mullahs in that area. Regardless of persistant Kazakh resistance to the idea, such Tatar proselyting continued fairly successfully with support from Russian officialdom.
Despite a seeming turn in Russian foreign policy at that time, provoked by the request submitted in 1780 from the Bukharan ruler Abul Ghazi (r.1758-1785) through his envoy to St. Petersburg, Mullah Ir Nazar Bek Maqsud-oghli, no certain answer to requests for free passage across Russia by Central Asian religious pilgrims subsequently came from the Russian government. It persisted in dealing cautiously with each separate appeal. Russian foreign minister Count Karl V. Nessel'rod as late as 1842 could only temporize in answering Shir Ali (r.1842-1845), the khan of Kho-kand, regarding the same matter:
I feel it necessary to declare to you that the passage of pilgrims can relate not alone to subjects of Khokand but also to inhabitants of the other Central Asian domains. Therefore, it is deemed necessary, preliminarily, to make a general consideration of this subject and when means are found for satisfying this petition, without breaking police regulations existing in Russia, the Khokand government will be informed.... However, out of regard for your personal request in the past year permission was given to Muhammad Sharif Khoja Qasim Khojaoghli to proceed to Mecca via Russia.
The other religious problem often raised in diplomatic exchanges, intermarriage between Central Asian and Russian subjects, developed out of long sojourns by Central Asian merchants who commonly married Tatar or Bashkir women while in Russia. Obduracy on the part of czarist authorities, who were unwilling to allow the Central Asians to take such Muslim wives and their children back to Khiva or Bukhara, stimulated formal petitions to permit these families to emigrate. Often they were turned down, less on religious grounds, it seemed, than upon the morbid fear then, as now, of allowing a human soul to escape from Russian state control.
In some respects, comparable to this situation stood the permanent problem of Russians, many of whom lived their entire adult lives as slaves in Bukhara or Khiva, who not uncommonly converted to Islam and married local girls. Apostasy, a capital crime under Islam, had also been particularly repugnant to the Russian Orthodox, to whom turning Muslim seemed worse than reverting to paganism. Especially distressing to Russian churchmen strong in government councils was this loss, in the relations with Central Asia, of any Russian who became Muslim (obusurmanilsia) to the extent of identifying his interests permanently with the Islamic community. Such persons made Russian efforts to liberate their countrymen from captivity very hazardous. The fact that Russian apostates at times served as double agents against Russian diplomats who attempted to recruit them for intelligence work while in Bukhara or Khiva was confirmed by Peter the Great's ambassador, Florio Beneveni. He reported that a Russian-turned-Muslim who knew of the envoy's activities at Bukhara once revealed the identity of Beneveni's undercover courier to Khivan authorities.
After 1800, probably no other cause involving Central Asia stirred popular resentment in Russia more than the imagined plight of these Christians under "heathen" oppression and the feeling that it was a sacred duty to free them. Although religious reasons for such a crusade were frequently spoken of, very likely national pride as much as piety motivated officials in focusing attention upon the Russian captives in Khiva. The religious fanaticism which Russia, rightly or wrongly, always feared it would arouse in Bukhara, the old Muslim religious center of Central Asia, erupted only momentarily there during the czarist conquest, but even before, sectarian zeal exploded in its most dangerous form in the Khokand khanate southeast of Khiva and Bukhara.
Khokand's ruthless Alim Khan (r.1800-1809), after subjugating most of the lands adjacent to his domain and coming to terms with his remaining Asian neighbors, deduced who his real enemy was. At the end of his career, recognizing the czarist threat to Khokand's ascendance as well as to Islamic Central Asia's separate existence, Alim Khan declared:
No enmity toward us persists in these regions except that of urus-i bidin [the Russian infidel]. Now it behooves us to conduct campaigns in defense or furtherance of Islam (ghäzat) as well as jihad against that worthless herd and gird our loins in hostility toward them.
Following this injunction his successors strengthened Khokand's frontiers to the north while Russian and Khokandian armies rapidly approached one another. The religious warfare proclaimed by Alim Khan was delayed about two decades, however, until the adversaries found common borders and developed their mutual antipathy further.
One step in this direction resulted from a diplomatic rebuff foolishly administered by the Russian foreign ministry to Khokand's ambassador Khoja Mirqurban at Petropavlovsk in 1831. A direct consequence of czarist refusal to admit the ambassador to inner Russia was the strong agitation created by the Tashkent Qushbegi's revival of the call to Kazakhs of the Middle Horde (Orta Jüz) and to Khokand generally to conduct a war for the Faith against Russian "infidels." Holy War had also been incited in Central Asia by Muslim Turkey in connection with that country's conflict with Russia in 1828, and in the tension of the early 1860s, especially after Russia's capture of Tokmak, this clash of religions was seldom ignored. Jihad was widely heralded again by General Mullah Alim Qui, who, on being notified in 1864 that a body of his troops had surrounded a sizable Russian force at Aq Bulaq in the area northeast of Tashkent, ordered his subordinates, in the accepted Muslim way:
to enter into negotiations with them [the Russians].... If they accept the faith of Islam and repent their actions then render kindness to them, and they will be alive and well. In the opposite case, I shall come myself ... with all my troops and all artillery and blast them to dust and ashes through the powe: of my sword.
At least a fifth of the Russian unit was killed or wounded before it could extricate itself from this encirclement.
Thus, near the end of the contest between Khokand and Russia before the capture of Tashkent, the strife took on the identity of Holy War, but the broader Central Asian conflict had been preceded by centuries of skirmishes and some large-scale battles between the adversaries in which, though they usually aligned Muslims against Christians, religious considerations remained of secondary importance. Direct clashes which occurred in the ninth century A.D., even before Muslim and Christian religions could have constituted a serious factor for the Central Asian Turkic or Russian combatants, broke out as the result of repeated plundering raids launched from the Russian area by Slavs or Scandinavians upon the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea. Often fighting alongside stronger powers, from the tenth to twelfth centuries, Central Asians met Russians in battles involving mainly the Khazars, Bulgars, or Polovetsians (Cumans).
In a similar manner, Central Asian warriors, particularly the Turkic nomads of the plains, made up considerable strength in Batu Khan's armies invading Russia between 1237 and 1240, and during the late fourteenth century, Russians found themselves once again embroiled in such wars when Timur (Tamerlane) (r.1370-1405) and his Central Asians smashed the Golden Horde, with its Slavic contingents, in battles fought over northern Khwarazm and southern Russia. Thereafter, because of the breakdown of the Golden Horde and rise of separate khanates, military contact between Russia and Central Asia lessened, though it continued in an indirect fashion on a smaller scale until such relations took another twist when the Russian southern frontier, which had contracted under nomadic pressure in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, pushed down far beyond its earlier limits.
Forerunners of that southern expansion were Cossack settlements which prepared the Russian base for direct military action against Central Asia from their Yaik (Ural) River outposts. During the collapse in Russian central government around the turn of the seventeenth century, these Russian frontiersmen struck the first of a number of unrewarding, bloody thrusts into settled Central Asian territory. Ataman Nechai Starenskoi and his Yaik band penetrated with the surprise overland campaign of 1603 all the way into the heart of the Khivan khanate where the Cossacks first occupied, plundered, and devastated Urganch, the capital, but were then surrounded, besieged by Arab Muhammad Khan I (r.1602-1621), and slaughtered before they could escape with the women and booty they had captured. Twice more in the same century Cossacks were reportedly cut down while attempting to succeed in the same exploit.
Russian pacification at home contrasted with increasing strife among the Central Asians themselves, and created, during most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a climate in which true military adventures could not have been expected to emanate from the khanates upon Russia. But the opposite was not true. As empire builders like Peter the Great began to take an interest in expansion to the southeast, the Russian government planned an elaborate expedition in force—described as a diplomatic mission—against Khiva.
In 1717, a 3,500-man Russian command overcame great logistical problems, sharp resistance, and the desert, and reached Khiva only to be destroyed as a military unit, with all but a very few survivors taken into lifelong captivity. This fatal Russian campaign, led by the Circassian officer Alexander Bekovich-Cherkassky, had been preceded in 1716 by attempts to establish the first Russian fortress upon the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea at Tub Qaragan bay and farther south at what is now Krasnovodsk. The Russian debacle at Khiva soon forced the abandonment of these outposts, and Peter's approach to Central Asia from the west was ended.
More effective, in the long run, was the Russian advance from the north in a campaign led in 1715 by Colonel Ivan Bukhgol'ts with nearly 3,000 men down along the Irtish River from Tobolsk to Yamish lake, where they built a fort. Besieged there by Kalmyks under Cherin Donduk, this Russian force abandoned the fort, and only 700 survivors were able to retreat to the mouth of the Om River. There, in 1716, the depleted detachment established a fort which became the town of Omsk. Bukhgol'ts, like Bekovich-Cherkassky at Khiva, lost his life in the effort.
Only two years later came the erection of the Semipalatinsk fort, and in 1720 a similar stronghold appeared at Ust-Kamenogorsk. The new frontier post of Orenburg was established in 1735 where Orsk now stands, at the mouth of the Or, by 1743 shifting west to its present site at the confluence of the Ural and Sakmara rivers. Troitsk was founded in the same year Orenburg took its second location, and a decade later, Petropavlovsk (1752) was established.
Excerpted from Central Asia by Edward Allworth. Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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